CONVENT — The $9.4 billion Formosa chemical complex proposed on the west bank of St. James Parish cleared a key hurdle Tuesday night as the parish Planning Commission backed the Taiwanese project promising hundreds of millions in tax revenue and thousands of jobs.
Announced in April by Gov. John Bel Edwards, the huge facility is proposed for 2,400 acres of cane field and swamp on land already earmarked for industry. The proposal has received the backing of Parish President Timmy Roussel and schools Superintendent Ed Cancienne.
Yet, environmentalists from outside the parish and residents inside the parish highlighted the environmental impact of the facility Tuesday and what they see as the moral and existential question that yet another industrial facility poses for their parish of nearly 21,400 people.
“What do you envision St. James Parish to be? A parish full of plants or a parish full of family life where people can come and say, 'Hey, I want to go to St. James Parish. Maybe I’ll move there,’ ” asked Ophelia Cola Williams, 67, of Convent.
Other implored the commissioners to consider what their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren might think of the parish’s land use decisions.
The commission voted 7-2 to accept Formosa's plans for FG LA LLC's Sunshine Project, which is proposed along the Mississippi River only a few miles south of the Sunshine Bridge and a bit more than a mile north of the St. James and Welcome communities.
Shortly following the vote, one out-of-town opponent, who called the commissioners “cowards” for their vote, was removed by law enforcement officers after he cursed at the commissioners.
Under a separate resolution formalizing the initial approval, FG LA LLC will have to have 300-foot buffers along its site and would be limited on any future expansions.
Under St. James' planning rules, the commission's vote is technically final unless there is an appeal to the Parish Council within 30 days.
Opponents promised Tuesday there will be appeal, potentially setting up another contentious public hearing and vote before the council. Last month, the project went through extended public hearings on both sides of the Mississippi River.
The Formosa complex is expected to generate 1,200 permanent full-time jobs and more than 8,000 temporary construction jobs over the project's 12-year building schedule. Average annual pay for the permanent jobs would be $84,500, the FG LA LLC website says.
Known as the Sunshine Project, the complex would have a dock on the river and access to rail and pipelines.
The plant, which also would have major air emissions — a key concern of critics, who also have expressed unease about Formosa’s track record in other countries — would produce ethylene glycol, polypropylene, polymer and polyethylene. Made from cracking petroleum, the chemicals are important feed stocks used in making plastics, rubber, resins and other products.
Formosa officials have said one of the reasons they picked the site is that it was already slotted for industrial use by the parish. But, even with that designation, parish land use rules require that larger residential and commercial developments and major facilities to get the additional commission review.
In the months of run-up to the parish land use decision, Formosa officials started community outreach programs with the public school system, including the school nearest the plant, and agreed earlier this month to help upgrade to the parish’s Welcome Park near the proposed plant site.
Formosa officials have also promised to widen about two miles of La. 3127 along its property line to relieve construction traffic and assist in finding an alternative, emergency route for residents on the west bank.
“FG is also committed to investing in and addressing real needs in the community through projects and initiatives developed with input from the people who live and work in this community,” said Janile Parks, FG’s director of community and government relations. “We’re proud to have begun implementing the process of education and quality of life projects to demonstrate our commitment to the west bank.”
She said the plant’s environmental controls would meet or exceed state and federal standards.
Formosa expects construction on the complex to start in the first quarter of 2019, pending permit approval. The facility would be built in two phases, with the first expected to be ready for operation in 2024 and the second in 2030.
Important air permits for the facility are still under review by the state Department of Environmental Quality.